A veteran of Was (Not Was) and Kid Rock‘s Twisted Brown Trucker band, and myriad sessions, saxophonist David McMurray came into the late Johnny Hallyday‘s orbit when good pal Don Was produced the French singing icon’s 2014 album Rester Vivant — and never left. Hallyday was so taken with McMurray that he stole him away to be part of his touring band, where McMurray stayed until Hallyday’s final headlining tour ended during August 2016. Back at home in Detroit, with a new solo album of his own due out next year, McMurray talked to Billboard about his time with Hallyday.
Don was producing [Rester Vivant], and [Hallyday] decided he needed a sax. Don said, “I got this guy in Detroit who’s good” and kind of built me up, and they said OK. When I came out, I didn’t know what to expect, but [Was] said, “Just play yourself. Just be yourself,” and we just blasted through the solos, and [Hallyday] was so cool. After the session was over he came up and said, “Do you want to join my band?” I thought he was joking, so I was like, “Oh, yeah, of course! I’m ready!” But he was serious. He came back and said, “OK, you’re going to join my band? It’s a rock ‘n’ roll band.” He told me everything he was going to do, and he pretty much did it. We toured off and on for, like, a year and a half and did some TV shows and things like that.
It was a very cool situation. I’d go back and forth and be in France for a stretch at a time. It’s every musicians dream to go to France and play, right? I actually was in the middle of Paris, right in the middle of town and we’d be playing three gigs a week, so the rest of the week I’m just playing and having a good time. It was something I wished for forever, but it just kind of happened.
And Johnny, he had a lot of pop hits but he looked at himself as a rock/R&B kind of singer. Besides his own hits we’d be doing covers of Wilson Pickett, these obscure Johnny Guitar Watson songs I didn’t even know. He would sing them in French, but he was really deep into music. Y’know, Jimi Hendrix opened for [Hallyday] in France, and after that Johnny recorded “Hey Joe” and it became a hit for him over there. But he had 40 years of hits. He could do every song a hit but instead he would still put out the Johnny Guitar Watson, stuff he just enjoyed singing. That was very cool.
He was such an icon over there. People told me, “He’s big.” “OK, cool.” “No, he’s really big.” One guy said he’s bigger than the president. I said, “Really?” But they weren’t joking. He was someone grandmas knew, and their kids knew ’em and their grandkids.
He was such a great singer. I would listen to the old tapes and when he was young he was a good singer, but by the end he had this big, operatic, deep voice and he would be killing them every night on the gigs. I didn’t really know what he was saying, but people were very emotional about what he was singing. I would look out every night and there’d be women out there crying and guys with their hands reaching out, like they’re singing the songs themselves. It was powerful.
He was a great guy, too. I could tell he kinda respected me and stuff like that, but he was really just a good guy, and I learned from him, just watching how he handled the stage. He would just go out there and kill them. He still had that powerful voice and just delivered every time he was on stage.
People knew he had cancer, but he was such a fighter. They called him The Boss over there; All the other singers, no matter how old they were, he was ahead of all of them. Everybody was like, “Oh, he’s gonna beat this.” Somewhere in the middle of this year he went out and did one of those all-star singer tours, and my friends who were in the band went and I said, “How did he look?” “He looks great. He sounds great!” He wasn’t giving up or anything like that. Everybody thought, “He’s The Boss. He’s gonna beat this.”
He was still planning on touring. He had the idea he was going to tour next year. It was going to be his 75th year, so [he was] gonna do a special tour, in the round or something like that. He was looking forward to it. And the last time I saw him he said, “I will see you in California. We’re recording a new record in California. I’ll fly you out and we will do that,” and I’m like, “Yeah!” But he didn’t get to that point.
I actually heard from some of his fans, serious fans who you’d see at 10, 15 shows on a tour. They were writing me ’cause they were concerned. They said, “Put Johnny in your prayers,” and I was like, “Wow, this might be more serious than I thought.” But people cared about him that much, and I’m so grateful I got to experience that. He gave me the experience of a lifetime.